Embodiment: ‘individuals’ lived experiences in their bodies as they engage with the world’
Considering embodiment in work with girls can help us to understand the effects of gendered oppression, as well as the potential of approaches that aim to tackle it.
Many popular approaches to work with girls choose the important issue of gender inequality in education as their focus. The global push to achieve equal education goes beyond just ensuring girls stay in school; it aims to be gender transformative. From ensuring girls can attend school when they have their periods, to providing equal access to learning once they are in classrooms, many interventions aim to bridge the gap between boys’ and girls’ schooling. This, of course, is a critical global issue.
The logic championed by many of these approaches, however, is that an educated girl can lift her family and community out of poverty. This focus on ‘smart economics’ assumes that if girls can complete education, they will enter the workforce as productive citizens and play a role in economic growth. By identifying girls as a homogenous group and using education as a means to an economic end, these approaches to ‘empowerment’ risk neglecting the specific ways girls experience patriarchal power structures in their own contexts.
If the term ‘empowerment’ is already seen to be a buzzword, the lack of attention to girls’ intersecting realities makes it more so. There must also be a recognition of the nuanced ways in which they interact with and are affected by the social structures and oppressive systems in which they live as embodied individuals.
Explorations of embodied oppression show that the personal certainly is political. This angle has been used by feminists to illuminate the experiences of females and other marginalised genders. As a starting point, the gendering of bodies is itself a vehicle for oppression; in categorising people into the binary of male and female, patriarchal power structures uphold norms such as toxic masculinity, subjugation of females and the exclusion of those outside the gender binary.
For girls in particular, oppression is experienced in different ways depending on their identities and contexts. Intersectionality is the term for the way in which different social systems interact to create varying experiences of oppression, depending on embodied identity. These identities – gender, age, race, ability, class, caste, among others – compound to result in societal oppression that is more than the sum of its parts.
Control of reproductive health, sexual violence and societal beauty standards are all instances of the embodied nature of gendered oppression experienced by girls. In contexts where menstruation is taboo, this embodied experience can result in girls’ exclusion from society and in others, the onset of puberty can be accompanied by sexual objectification. Each intersectional experience of oppression is different, and so the nuanced experience of embodiment is key to understanding gendered oppression in girls. Therefore, embodiment must also be an indispensable aspect of interventions that aim to tackle such oppression. In doing so, embodiment can be a tool for achieving gender justice with girls, and to avoid broad interventions that fail to take intersectionality into account – those interventions will leave the girls who may be most marginalised behind.
Embodiment in development
All this is not to say that embodiment is not already present in development in some way. Sport for Development (SfD) is a widely-used approach that utilises participants’ bodies to achieve positive outcomes. For children and young people especially, sport can be a way to encourage positive relationships, teamwork and discipline. SfD projects engage girls through methods such as connecting them with female coaches as role models and supporting them to participate in sports that may usually be reserved for boys. Such interventions attempt to tackle harmful gender stereotypes and norms by teaching girls leadership and supporting them to see the positive outcomes of participating in a traditionally male social arena.
Whilst sport has been used to encourage skills and self-esteem in girls, there exists the view that it falls short of recognising the effects of social and cultural structures. Programmes tend not to address oppressive systems, focusing only on building girls’ capacities. By failing to unmask the role of social structures in the intersectional experience of oppression, such work risks leaving girls seeing themselves as ‘both the problem and the solution’.
Yoga as an embodied intervention
Although not widely used in development, yoga is increasingly used in the fields of social change, health and trauma and holds great potential for addressing the effects of oppression. The Sanskrit term ‘yoga’ means ‘to join’ or ‘unite’, indicating the union between mind and body that the ancient practice aims to achieve. Yoga is both philosophical and physical, with the embodied asanas, or physical postures, encouraging a deeper connection that is absent from other embodied approaches. In doing so, and through being trauma-informed, it can begin to acknowledge and break down the effects of oppression as experienced in an embodied way. Trauma-informed yoga holds awareness of the effects of oppression on participants, supporting them to make choices such as stopping when they need to and participants deciding how they will experience a certain posture.
Bodily connection through yoga is realised in the Healing and Resilience After Trauma (HaRT) Yoga programme in Kampala, Uganda. The women and girls taking part are survivors of trafficking, having experienced gravely embodied trauma in the form of violence and exploitation. Practicing HaRT Yoga allows them to be ‘at the centre of their own healing’, through its feminist and trauma-informed approach. Additionally, programmes for girls in juvenile justice centres in the US successfully used yoga to support the diverse needs of its participants. Girls of colour are overrepresented in the US juvenile justice system and experience often overlooked forms of trauma, such as historical trauma and criminalisation after experiencing sexual abuse. Engaging in bodily connection and emotional regulation through yoga can support each individual participant to heal from their experience.
There are of course challenges in taking such an approach with girls. In more conservative cultures, social norms may prevent girls from practicing yoga. Challenges may arise around the nature of embodied gendered oppression, as trauma requires sensitive handling by appropriately trained professionals. It is also argued that yoga has been appropriated by the West and its commodification prioritises thin, white bodies. In order to ensure yoga provides a safe, inclusive space for social change, these tensions, including the colonial history of yoga, must be surfaced and addressed.
Nevertheless, yoga’s ability to be intersectional means it can be adapted to meet the needs of girls and attend to the varying effects of oppression. For instance, instructors can use inclusive language, support participants to feel comfortable to express emotions, or encourage the exploration of physical postures more comfortable for their body types than classic asanas.
There is no ‘magic bullet’ to tackling gendered oppression, but an embodied approach is key. Yoga-based interventions allow a connection to the body that can be intersectional and trauma-informed, meaning they can address the countless ways gendered oppression is experienced in different contexts. There are many advantages to large-scale interventions on education and other critical areas, but embodied interventions support a holistic approach to work with girls. This embodiment is necessary to ensure those girls who are most marginalised don’t get left behind.